Neil Jordan‘s take on the Graham Greene novel The End of the Affair is so beautiful in looks and tasteful in sentiment that it’s hard not to think the novelist and onetime film critic would have hated it. Or at least graced the director with a withering comment or two. Published in 1951, the book is based in great part on Greene‘s affair with Catherine Walston, a restless beauty with a dull husband and five children who sounds as if she appealed far more to men than to women. Greene’s personal life was such that the novel was also somewhat inspired by another of his affairs, this one with Dorothy Glover, a hard drinker who looked like a Munchkin and was described as “small and roly-poly” by no less an authority than Greene‘s wife, Vivien. In the novel, there is one woman, not two (or three), and it’s a professional writer named Maurice Bendrix who beds her. Sarah Miles is mar-ried to a civil servant named Henry, who, in time, with Greene‘s typical grim wit, becomes an assistant in the Ministry of Home Security. Sarah and Bendrix, as he’s usually called, continue their affair through the blitz, but one afternoon she breaks it off without explanation. The novel begins after the war, when Bendrix accidentally runs into Henry and insinuates himself back into the couple‘s life.
The End of the Affair isn’t Greene‘s greatest work, but it has undeniable force. As always, there’s the blunt beauty of his language; mainly, though, there‘s the insistent, unsentimental way in which Bendrix narrates the story as “a record of hate far more than of love.” But there’s something else, too, and it‘s this, more than the illicit sex or the intensity with which it’s described, or even the lives that inspired it, that gives the book its real kink: Quite unexpectedly, God becomes as much Bendrix‘s rival as Henry. Although Greene’s eccentric Catholicism might seem impossible to translate to the screen (though, in fact, there is a 1955 version with Deborah Kerr and, improbably, Van Johnson), it‘s easy to see what drew the director in. More than most filmmakers, Jordan revels not just in stories but in their telling, a fascination with form that appears in all his features. Bendrix’s is the primary voice, but a huge swath of the narration belongs to Sarah — he tells the story, but she lays open its heart — upending the essential concept of the all-knowing narrator. At the beginning of the novel, Bendrix is narrating a story in which ignorance is his greatest enemy; at the end, he‘s admitted the terrifying discovery that knowledge isn’t necessarily any kinder.
Jordan begins his “record of hate” faithfully enough, with period detail and Greene‘s own dialogue, but it isn’t long before the adaptation begins to seem too scrupulous, fetishistic. Instead of investing the movie with life, the immaculate clothing, the decor and even the anachronous syntax begin to weigh it down; how the actors say their lines and move about in their respective roles seems more important than the passions they‘re meant to express. When the three leads take position in a room — Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore play the lovers, with Stephen Rea as a perfectly tamped-down Henry — you can almost feel them trying to do it the way Jordan imagines it would have played out a half-century ago. The result doesn’t feel like a recognizably human, absolutely urgent story, but like a precious curio best left to gather dust on a shelf, an amber-tinted tableau vivant. As Sarah, Moore makes a persuasive object of desire, but as with so much of this claustrophobic movie, her performance feels more self-conscious than lived-in. With her creamy skin and perfectly wrung tears, the actor brings to mind less a flesh-and-blood 1940s woman than a 1940s screen heroine. Intentionally or not, Jordan has fashioned a film that feels not like a fresh take on a period novel but rather like an obsessive re-creation of a period movie, albeit one jazzed up with some polite nudity.
Movie-ness touches everything in this film: the music, the too-perfect production design, even the sex. This may have been what Jordan was after — he even invents a romantic interlude that seems more suited to a movie with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson — but compared to the novel‘s unflinching attitude toward flesh and faith, his version feels like a cop-out. Jordan simply isn’t up to Greene‘s ferocity, and neither are his two leads. Fiennes has the sort of pliant, mewling beauty that invites punishment, and a curiously reluctant physicality; he always looks as if he’s trying to draw attention away from himself. He‘s at his best floundering alone in emotional frailty, which is why he’s so good in Quiz Show and Strange Days, films in which his screen presence complements the impotence of his characters. He seems built for hurt. But Bendrix isn‘t weak or written to be pitied; he’s unforgiving, at times cruel. Greene‘s narrator is an unpleasant man, and for long stretches in the book comes across as nearly hateful. He can be so awful that it’s impossible not to admire Greene, if just a little, for such an ugly self-portrait. Of course, the novelist was having his cake and eating it, too — he made himself look bad, his lover look better, but he also offered up the most personal details of their affair for the world‘s delectation. Here, revenge was his art.
Fiennes is too moderate for passions of such biblical proportions. He can’t harden his moist eyes and girlishly petulant mouth into the profile of the lover who wants to drown love in bile. When Bendrix rails against Sarah and God, prompting a priest to reply that he‘s “a very good hater,” it doesn’t ring true, because the actor is neither a good nor a remotely convincing hater. He‘s not a convincing lover, either, and Jordan has done him no favors. Greene was an unembarrassed connoisseur of the flesh. In the book, the first time the couple have sex it’s in a cheap hotel, and Bendrix reveals that it wasn‘t good the way that the first time often isn’t good. Jordan prettifies Greene‘s human exchange with choreography, discreet lighting and the sort of effortless female ecstasy that exists only in the male imagination, or pornography. It’s beautiful, even a little hot, but it‘s also as phony as a backlot clinch. Jordan isn’t giving us real bodies and real emotions in this scene, he‘s giving us movie sex — no misplaced elbows, no awkward noises, nothing human and pulpy — glossing up the eroticism in the same way he glosses over the novel’s ferociously uncompromising attitude toward faith.
Greene was a cynic, but he was relentlessly compassionate toward his characters, at least once he found his voice. Jordan is actually less forgiving, because he tends to give his characters ideals to live up (and down) to, rather than having them tough out prickly emotional truths. As a filmmaker, his weakness is a sentimental streak that runs as deep as his cynicism, and it‘s the perilous balance between these two that can make or break his work. In The End of the Affair, Jordan goes easy on Bendrix and Sarah, but mostly he goes easy on Greene, a decision that seems less like failure of nerve than misplaced conscience. Such sentimentalism is a poor fit with Greene. In 1939, in his capacity as a film critic, Greene wrote, “How much better they would have made Wuthering Heights in France. They know there how to shoot sexual passion; but in this Californian-constructed Yorkshire, among the sensitive neurotic English voices, sex is cellophaned; there is no egotism, no obsession.” Watching this well-behaved adaptation of one of Greene’s most personal novels, you can‘t help but wish that the novelist had been around to write his own script. It’s easy to imagine him rebuking Jordan for doing the very thing Greene said Hollywood did to Emily Bronte: treating the story with reverence rather than with the merciless human feeling with which it was written.